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Practical Handbook for the Working Musician, Part 3: Learning Tunes Efficiently – Chords and Notes
March 31, 2022

by Mike Mindel. This article was originally published on HVmusic around the year 2000.

In part one we discussed learning the form of a song, the first step in learning a tune. Now let's focus step two-- Chords and Notes- learning your parts.

To review for a minute, the steps to efficiently learning a song are, in this order:

  1. Form: i.e. intro-verse-chorus, etc.
  2. chords and notes: learn your part.
  3. Sounds: getting the settings you want to use on the tune.
  4. Putting It All Together

The following information applies no matter what your instrument. After all, as Frank Perdue says, parts is parts. By the way, does anybody know if Frank Perdue and Tom Carvel are related?

I almost always learn songs using a Walkman and headphones. By pressing the headphones against my ears, I can hear the parts more clearly. By moving the headphones slightly back from the center of my ear, I can hear the bass part easier. Learning your part from the bass line up is the most logical way to approach it. More times than not, the first bass note played at the beginning of a measure will be the root of the chord; i.e. if the bass note is an E, the chord or lines over it will outline some form of an E chord. With blues and 50's-60's rock and roll, this will apply 99.9% of the time. With rock and roll and pop music, this will apply almost all of the time. In jazz and some of today's more sophisticated pop music, the first bass note played at the chord will deviate from the root of the chord much more often than in other styles of music, but will still be the root the vast majority of the time. I say go with the odds. (We'll get into inversions and chords with alternate bass notes another time.)

Familiar Intervals

Now how do we hear what the intervals between the bass notes are? Believe it or not, you already recognize and can sing many intervals. You don't think so? Can you pick out any note on your axe and from that note sing the Flintstones theme song? Well, if you can only sing the first two notes, you recognize and can sing the interval of a fifth. How about a fourth? Can you pick out any note on your axe and from that note sing the beginning of revelry, the military wakeup bugle call? Well, if you can only sing the first two notes, you recognize and can sing the interval of a fourth.

Fourths and fifths are handy intervals to recognize since they are the most common. In so many songs, the measure before a verse begins will be the V chord (G in the key of C, E in the key of A, etc.), leading to the I chord at the verse. Bass notes playing the root of a V chord going down to the I chord is the interval of a fifth. A V chord going up to the I chord is a fourth. For an octave, try the first two notes of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow or "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts) There are endless examples like these for all different intervals. So next time you're listening to a tune, see if you find it easier to hear intervals in the bass lines by recognizing them as pieces of familiar song melodies.

If You Can Sing It, You Can Play It

This simple idea is one of the most valuable music lessons I've ever had. You know those tape decks that will play at half speed so you can learn fast passages easily, and speed up so hard to hear bass parts sound an octave higher? Well guess what? You've got one! It's your own voice. And you don't have to be a good singer to use this method. You just have to be able to recognize that you're singing the same note you're hearing. Even without relative pitch (the ability to recognize the intervalbetween notes), your odds are 1 and 12 that you'll find the note your looking for on the first try.

Understand that I'm covering this topic as someone who does not have perfect pitch and only some of the time has relative pitch. If you have perfect pitch, this article doesn't apply to you and I'm jealous. My friend Joe used to listen to the whine of an airplane flying by and tell me what note it was. I'd run over to the piano to see if he was me. He never missed. That's perfect pitch. Scary.

The objective of this exercise is to strengthen the connection between singing and then playing a phrase of music, so that ultimately playing a part is as easy as humming it. The simple fact is, if you can, note by note, sing the part you're trying to learn, you can find the notes and ultimately play the part.

To try this out, use the melody of a familiar tune you've never played. A melody, rather than a bass line, because it's easier to hear. A familiar tune, so you sing the same intervals every time. A tune you've never played, because otherwise, it's cheating! You don't need to know the lyrics for this exercise. I use the syllables "hmm" or "ba" to sing the notes. If you prefer the Beavis and Butthead method, try the syllable "da".

Let's use the Led Zeppelin song 'Stairway to Heaven', from the first line of the melody: "There's a lady who's sure, all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

Start with the first three notes; "There's a la-...". Hum the first note. ("There's...") While you're humming it, find the note on your axe. It doesn't matter what the note happens to be. It only matters that you find the same note you're singing. Now hum the first two notes, "There's a...". Find the second note on you're axe while you're singing it off the first one. Now play the first two notes. Repeat this for the third note of the phrase. Then continue singing the rest of the line, finding the notes from your voice, phrase by phrase.

To use this method effectively, don't let your fingers get ahead of your voice. That is, don't resort to the 'hunt and pick' method. Find the note off your voice. Remember, the objective of this exercise is to strengthen the connection between singingand then playing a phrase of music, so that eventually learning a phrase of music becomes as easy as humming it.

You'll find this method more practical as you apply it to learning your own parts off a recording. I find it especially helpful when I'm sequencing a song, where I'm duplicating all the parts off a recording. I use it to figure out bass notes, percussion rhythms, the top note of a chord, melody lines, and all the inner lines such as string and horn parts.

Repeating this exercise from different starting notes is a good exercise in transposition and ear training. As you use this method more often to learn your particular part, you will begin to recognize what it feels like to sing different notes, thus begin to hear (even approximately) what notes you're about to learn, before you even actually play a note. Using this method myself for years, I have come to recognize that an 'E' is the lowest note I can sing. From that I can usually figure out the key of song I'm listening to by recognizing the interval between the bass note on the recording and the 'E' that I know is the bottom of my vocal register.


Musician Jokes:

What's the difference between a cello and a casket?
With a casket, the corpse is on the inside.

Did you hear about the blues musician who won the lottery?
When they asked him what he was going to do with all his money, he said: "I figure I'll just keep on giggin' 'till the money runs out."


Mike Mindel has been a professional musician for over 40 years and is currently a member of The Bills Toupee Band.

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